Rethinking Your Garbage

garbageDo you ever wonder what happens to your garbage after you throw it out? While we hope that the recyclable materials we painstakingly sorted out end up being recycled, the garbage usually ends up sitting in the landfill. Although the landfill may be a solution for our “throwaway” society, it isn’t quite a permanent one. Think about how the increasing population on the planet will directly increase the amount of garbage produced, and how land is a precious commodity. As the time increases, the amount of land available will decrease, and 2/3 of the Earth is covered by water anyway. With global warming, more land may become submersed. The ocean isn’t immune to garbage either, as much of it, especially plastic waste, ends up polluting the precious sea life and the water.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canada produced 777 kg per capita of municipal waste in 2008. In a study ranking the municipal waste generation of 17 countries, Canada ranked last, meaning that Canada produced the most garbage per person. What’s worse is that Canada’s municipal waste production has been increasing since 1990.  The Conference Board of Canada further states that Canada should learn from other countries such as Japan, the U.K., Sweden, Finland, and Denmark in order to improve their municipal waste management.

Sweden has found a solution in which less than 1 percent of household garbage (municipal solid waste) ends up in landfills, and 99% of the waste is recycled. This is a drastic improvement, since only 38 percent of Swedish household waste was recycled in 1975. How does Sweden do this? First, the Swedes take their recycling very seriously, and recycling stations are situated, “as a rule”, according to Swedish website, no more than 300 metres from any residential area. The garbage that can’t be recycled is incinerated for energy at their 32 specialized waste to energy incineration plants. In 2012, for instance, 2,270,000 tonnes of garbage was incinerated for energy. Sweden also imports 700,000 tonnes of waste from other countries, at a profit, and turns this foreign garbage into energy too.
“Waste to energy”  is the generation of energy, such as electricity and heat, from household garbage (municipal solid waste). Modern waste to energy incineration plants in OECD countries, including those in Sweden, must meet rigid emission guidelines pertaining to levels of toxic emissions such as those of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals, and dioxins. The waste to energy plants utilize furnaces which are fed garbage. The garbage is burnt, producing heat which boils water and generates steam. The steam powers generator turbines that can then produce  electricity and heating. The electricity is distributed across the country. And just like that, in Sweden, 810,000 households are furnished with heating and 250,000 with electricity.

 While Swedish citizens overall don’t seem to be complaining about waste incineration, some people point out that the toxins leaked into the air can be unhealthy for the environment.  Even though emission levels of toxins are controlled for, modern incinerators can still emit small amounts of heavy metals, dioxins, particulates, and acid gas in the fly ash.  Lime scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators are put on smokestacks to filter the smoke and prevent acid rain, while fabric filters, reactors, and catalysts also significantly work on limiting the amounts of released pollutants. Aqueous ammonia can be used to control for the amount of nitrogen oxides, and carbon can help control for the amounts of mercury. Phosphoric acid can be administered to counterbalance the ash.

When it comes to greenhouse gases, methane gas is 21 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. Landfills in Canada generate a staggering 20% of  the nation’s total methane production. According to Environment Canada, about 27 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent are produced each year from Canada’s landfills, out of which 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent are released into the environment annually. About 7 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent are captured from landfills through a gas collection system, and combusted- this has the equivalent effect of taking 5.5 million cars off the road. Much of the carbon dioxide is not captured from landfills. There is also concern that landfill sites are filling up fast, and new sites are increasingly more difficult to find.

Canada needs to step up its waste to energy game. At present, the nation has only 7 waste to energy plants. They are located in Burnaby, BC; Quebec City, QC; Levis, QC; Iles de la Madelaine, QC; Brampton, Ont; Charlottetown, PEI; and Wainright, Alta. The waste to energy plant in Burnaby, BC, for instance, has been successfully operating since 1988. It produces a sufficient amount of electricity to power 16,000 households, earning Metro Vancouver about $6 million from the sale of electricity. About 8000 tonnes of metals are recovered each year, which earns the city $500,000 annually from the sale of recycled metal. More waste to energy plants should be built in Canada in order to divert the nation’s abhorrent trend of landfilling.

New waste to energy technologies are emerging which are even more exciting alternatives to landfills because these don’t require direct combustion, thus preventing fly ash and reducing the amount of bottom ash.  Conversion technologies involve the heating of municipal solid waste at superheated temperatures in an oxygen-controlled environment to deter combustion. Solid waste is converted to usable products such as synthesis gas, which is mainly made of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This “syngas” can be burned in a boiler to generate electricity, or be processed into a fuel.  In a few years from now, more affordable technology could allow this syngas to be cleaned and purified of contaminants, allowing conversion technologies to become an efficient and cleaner alternative to combustion incineration. Newer technologies do not produce as much bottom ash, a toxic byproduct, as incinerated waste does. 40% of bottom ash produced by incinerating garbage is thrown into the landfill, and 60% of it is further processed to salvage metals. Conversion technologies can collect metals right away, and leave less byproduct to dump into the landfill.

When I think of landfills, I am often reminded of the scene in Idiocracy where the garbage in their landfill is piled up so ridiculously high that it collapses very dramatically. The image serves not only as a direct parable, but as a metaphor too. As the human population increases, so will the amount of garbage produced. Canada is generally known as a progressive country with a high standard of living. As a proud Canadian, I would love to see Canada find a good solution for the management of the population’s garbage.

Sierra Delarosa





More Junk Science? The Anti-BPA Crusade is Back

BPARonald Doering, BA, LL.B., MA, LL.D., is a past president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. He is Counsel in the Ottawa offices of Gowlings

The 25-year controversy involving BPA in food packaging won’t go away. It continues to hang ominously like a black cloud over the food industry.

Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, is a chemical used primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. The polycarbonate is used in food contact materials such as food containers and processing equipment. Epoxy resins are used in protective linings for a variety of canned foods and beverages, including infant formula.

Over the years Health Canada (HC) conducted periodic reviews of BPA to determine whether dietary exposure to it could pose a health risk to consumers. Based on the overall weight of evidence, including reaffirmation by other international regulatory agencies (notably the U.S., Europe and Japan), HC’s Food Directorate has concluded again unequivocally that the current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population, including newborns and infants. In response to growing consumer concern, HC hosted a huge expert meeting in November 2010 in collaboration with several national regulatory authorities and international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to review the current science. The clear conclusion of this expert meeting confirmed th at BPA was safe for food packaging. Moreover, HC has continued to do a number of studies, reports and surveys, all of which are posted online. HC has made a real effort to make the science available to the lay public and to try to interpret it in ways that the ordinary consumer can understand. HC’s study of BPA levels in canned drinks, for example, notes that a person would have to consume 940 canned drinks in one day to reach the tolerable daily intake.

Still, the issue is raging back in the media and the blogosphere This latest anti-BPA crusade seems to have arisen from the recent media re-discovery of BPA alarmist Dr. Frederick Vom Saal who has made it clear that in his opinion “there is no scientific argument… there is overwhelming evidence of harm.” France’s recent decision to ban the manufacture, import, export and marketing of all food containers containing BPA (effective in 2015) has added some scientific “credibility” to the anti-BPA movement.

The controversy among scientists has often been personal and bitter. Even highly respected Professor Richard Sharpe of the UK’s Medical Research Council was so angered by the bad science of the critics of PBA that he wrote an essay in 2009 in which he documented their consistent violation of the “fundamental principles of scientific inquiry.” Sharpe argued that the “scientific mess” around PBA was caused by “supposedly fellow scientists” who “literally play loose with the scientific evidence.” Not to be outdone, Vom Saal insists that all the scientific studies that have found BPA safe cannot be trusted because of an industry-funded conspiracy in the United States. For scientists, that’s serious name-calling.

Even if there is little health risk, governments are forced to waste scarce resources to respond to the perception of risk. According to Professor Sharpe “repetitive work on bisphenol A has sucked in tens, probably hundreds, of millions of dollars from government bodies and industry which…looks increasingly like an investment with a nil return.” My colleague at Carleton University’s Food Science and Nutrition Program, internationally recognized professor of chemistry David Miller, shares this concern: “The unsaid danger here is how much money and effort is being put on BPA instead of things that might have a larger health impact.”

The continuing BPA controversy highlights another important issue—the problems that scientific uncertainty pose for government regulators. Professor Sharpe thinks that the basic problem is that “politicians—people in decision-making positions—don’t understand uncertainty.” Maybe. In my experience, it is just as problematic that most scientists don’t understand the regulatory system. Integrating science-based risk assessment and policy-based risk management is diabolical in its complexity, yet one of the most important public policy challenges of our time.

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